If you want to strike up a friendly conversion with a Brit, ask him or her about the weather – we’re really famous for our weather conversations and they normally focus on rain or clouds! However, despite the famous British ‘reserve’ and ‘stiff upper lip’, they also frequently talk about being ‘under the weather’, a phrase meaning slightly unwell or in low spirits.
I find myself smiling at some of the conversations I hear in medical establishment waiting rooms, particularly the potentially long wait for blood tests. Here, conversations bypass the weather and focus on being under the weather! I thought I was a regular when I started to recognise people in the queue (line!) and their pill conversations. Statements such as “Yes, I just started a ‘blue chap’ ” (medical names are sometimes hard to pronounce). Normally followed by “I’m on that one too and I take it along with my yellow and white chaps“. Some people seem to be taking a veritable rainbow of ‘chaps’. Strangely, some people appear to be quite proud of how many ‘chaps’ they take. I tend to maintain the traditional British reserve and a stiff upper lip in waiting rooms, so I keep quiet (actually I’m just happy to be inside away from the weather!).
I might join in one day and I wonder if they would be impressed with my tally of chaps? I have a funny feeling my tally of drugs is nothing compared to some of you guys and hope you will comment to prove me right! I don’t think I’m proud to give you my list but here’s my ‘chaps’, some prescription, some over the counter:
Apixaban (Eliquis). To prevent a recurrence of pulmonary emboli (PE). Unfortunately, I had PE after my big surgery in 2010. 2 per day.
Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (Creon). Recently added, anything between 6 and 12 per day depending on what I eat. Check out this article on PERT. Check out this article on Malabsorption with references to NET dietitians.
Multi-Vitamin (50+ age). I’ve actually been taking these since a few years before diagnosis in 2010. NET patients can be at risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Check out this article on the issues and with references to NET dietitians.
Vitamin B Complex. This was added in 2013 to mainly tackle low B12 (despite my multi-vit containing 400% RDA) and it seemed to help with fatigue. Read more here.
Vitamin D3. This was also added in 2013 to tackle low Vit D levels (again, despite my multi-vit containing 200% RDA). 10µg (400iu). D3 is normally the recommended form of Vitamin D to take, easiest to absorb and more natural. Vitamin D3 is also known as cholecalciferol. Many people who do not live in sunny countries are probably deficient or borderline already.
Probiotic. This was also added in 2013 to try to offset some of the abdominal issues that many NET patients seem to have. I take a 5 billion dose and it seems to help. Check out this article with references to NET dietitians.
Omega 3. This is also something I had been taking since before my diagnosis. I think I took it for a couple of reasons, my diet did not really include foodstuffs containing Omega 3 and I was experiencing some joint pain in my hands. I just never stopped taking it. Dose size 1000mg.
Lanreotide (Somatuline Autogel). An injection rather than a pill/capsule. Quite a big chap! You can read all about my relationship with Lanreotide by clicking here.
Levothyroxine. One 50mcg tablet each morning. My blood tests are indicating hypothyroidism – check out my whole thyroid story by clicking here. All NET patients need to keep an eye on thyroid levels. Read why here.
Seretide and Ventolin. These are asthma drugs, a preventer and a reliever respectively. I hardly ever take the latter nowadays. I had mild asthma as a child, it went at 16 and came back at 35. I take 2 puffs of Seretide night and day. Seems to help. Ventolin seems to be only required if I have a cold or flu thing going on.
Of course, most people have lots of other stuff in the ‘medicine box’ ready for ad hoc issues as they arise (pain killers, imodium, cough mixture, anti-histamines, indigestion, etc etc). I could go on forever.
Please always consult your specialists or dietitian about the requirements for drugs and supplements. You may not actually need them. I only take my supplements after very careful consideration, in reaction to low blood vitamin/mineral tests and listening to what ‘NET aware’ dietitians say (you’ll find references in some of the articles above).
Warning: You should always think carefully about over the counter stuff (including online) as there’s a lot of ‘scammers’ out there selling counterfeit supplements. Always buy from a reputable source. With supplements, remember in most countries they are not regulated in the same way as medicines so it’s worthwhile checking they are compliant with regional food supplements directives. The supplements provider I use is actually approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) covering UK. I’m sure there will be similar approval organisations where you live. Also be careful of some claims about the miracle cure of certain food supplements. There are plenty sites with fake health news online (check out my article on this – click here).
You should be clear why you take supplements and try to consult with a specialist or dietitian for advice.
Finally, don’t forget to take your chaps, they should help you keep well!
Diarrhea can be a symptom of many conditions but it is particularly key in Neuroendocrine Tumour (NET) Syndromesand types, in particular, Carcinoid Syndrome but also in those associated with various other NET types such as VIPoma, PPoma, Gastrinoma, Somatostatinoma, Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma.
Secondly, it can be a key consequence (side effect) of the treatment for Neuroendocrine Tumours and Carcinomas, in particular following surgery where various bits of the gastrointestinal tract are excised to remove and/or debulk tumour load.
There are other reasons that might be causing or contributing, including (but not limited to) endocrine problems such as hyperthryoidism, mastocytosis or Addison’s disease (which may be secondary illnesses in those with NETs). It’s also possible that ‘non-sydromic’ issues such as stress and diet are contributing. It could be caused by other things such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Yes, believe it or not, NET Patients can get normal diarrhea causing diseases too!
I want to give a general definition of diarrhea as there are many variants out there. In general, they all tend to agree that diarrhea is having more frequent, loose and watery stools. Three or more stools per day seems to be the generally accepted threshold, although some sites don’t put a figure on it. It’s not pleasant and just about everyone on the planet will suffer it at some point in their life, perhaps with repeated episodes. Normally it’s related to some kind of bug, or something you’ve eaten and will only last a few days before it settles (acute diarrhea). Diarrhea lasting more than a couple of weeks is considered chronic and some people will require medical care to treat it. It can also be caused by anxiety, a food allergy/intolerance or as a side effect of medicine. Pharmacists and GPs will be seeing many patients with this common ailment every single day of business.
Diarrhea induced by a Syndrome
When you consider the explanation above, it’s not really surprising that diarrhea related symptoms can delay a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer (and most likely other cancers too, e.g. pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer). For example, diarrhea is the second most common symptom of Carcinoid Syndrome (Flushing is actually the most common) and is caused mainly by the oversecretion of the hormone Serotonin from the tumours. Please note diarrhea in other types of syndromes or NETs may be caused by other hormones, for example it may also be caused by excess calcitonin in the case of Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma or VIP in the case of a functional pNET known as VIPoma. I’ve heard stories of people being told they have IBS or something similar for years before they received what is now a late diagnosis and at an advanced cancer stage. This is only one of the reasons why NETs is not an easy condition to diagnose, although it is possible that some people actually had IBS and it was masking the NET. Even after treatment to remove or reduce tumours, many people will remain syndromic and need assistance and treatment to combat diarrhea induced by a NET syndrome (see below).
Diarrhea as a Consequence (Side effect) of Treatment for Neuroendocrine Cancer and Other Conditions
All cancer treatments can have consequences and Neuroendocrine Cancer is definitely no exception here. For example, if they chop out several feet of small intestine, a chunk of your large intestine, chunks (or all) of your stomach or your pancreas, your gallbladder and bits of your liver, this is going to have an effect on the efficiency of your ‘waste disposal system’. One effect is that it will now work faster! Another is that the less effective ‘plumbing’ may not be as efficient as it was before. There are also knock-on effects which may create additional issues with the digestive system including but not limited to; Malabsorption and SIBO. I recommend you read my posts on Malabsorption and SIBO.
Surgery can often be the root cause of diarrhea. A shorter gut for example, means shorter transit times presenting as increased frequency of bowel movements. Another example is the lack of terminal ileum can induce Bile Acids Malabsorption (BAM) (sometimes known as Bile Salts Malabsorption) in degrees of severity based on size of resection. Lack of a gallbladder (common with NETs) can also complicate. Bile Acids are produced in the liver and have major roles in the absorption of lipids in the small intestine. Following a terminal ileum resection which includes a right hemicolectomy, there is a risk that excess Bile Acids will leak into the large intestine (colon) via the anastomosis (the new joint between small and large intestines). This leakage can lead to increased motility, shortening the colonic transit time, and so producing watery diarrhea (or exacerbating an existing condition). Although this condition can be treated using bile acid sequestrants (i.e. Questran), it can be difficult to pinpoint it as the cause.
Surgery of the pancreas can also produce effects such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency which can lead to a malabsorption condition known as steatorrhea which may be confused with diarrhea (although some texts call it a type of diarrhea). It isn’t really diarrhea but it may look like it given the presentation of the faeces and patients may suffer both diarrhea and steatorrhea concurrently. Patients will recognise it in their stools which may be floating, foul-smelling, greasy (oily) and frothy looking. Treatment options will mainly include the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy or PERT for short (Creon etc).
Many non-surgical treatments can also cause diarrhea, including but not limited to; somatostatin analogues (see below), chemotherapy, biological targeted therapy (e.g. Everolimus, Sunitinib), radiotherapy.
Somatostatin analogues are an interesting one as they are designed to inhibit secretion of particular hormones and peptides by binding to the receptors found on Neuroendocrine tumour cells. This has the knock-on effect of inhibiting digestive/pancreatic enzymes which are necessary to break down the fat in our foods leading to Malabsorption of important nutrients. This may worsen the steatorrhea in pancreatic NET patients but also lead to steatorrhea in others with non-pancreatic locations who have been prescribed these drugs.
Other conditions may actually be the cause of the diarrhea or the treatment for those conditions. For example, it is possible that people actually do have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Treatment therapy for common conditions may also be contributing, for example the use of Proton Pump Inhibitors for acid reflux.
Treatment for Syndrome Induced Diarrhea
Like many other NET patients, I’m on a 28 day injection of somatostatin analogues (in my case Lanreotide). Both Octreotide and Lanreotide are designed to reduce the effects of NET syndromes and therefore can often make a difference to syndrome induced diarrhea. These drugs also have anti-tumour effect and so even if you are not syndromic or they do not halt or adequately control syndrome induced diarrhea, they are still a valuable contribution to NET treatment.
Some syndromic patients find they still have diarrhea despite somatostatin analogues and they end up having ‘rescue shots’ or pumps for relief (both of these methods tend to be Octreotide based). (Hopefully they are not getting confused between diarrhea caused by the non-syndrome effects – see above). Some have more frequent injections of the long acting versions of somatostatin analogues which has the effect of increasing the dosage. There’s a new drug available for those whose carcinoid syndrome induced diarrhea is not adequately controlled or perhaps they are unable to have somatostatin analogues as a treatment. Telotristat Ethylworks by inhibiting tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH), a chemical reactor involved in the manufacture of serotonin, which is the main cause of syndrome induced diarrhea. It was approved by the US FDA in February 2017, EU areas in September 2017, and is on the way to being approved elsewhere. Read about this drug here.
Sorting out the symptoms – post diagnosis
I like to describe this as the Neuroendocrine Cancer jigsaw. It’s a really difficult one and sometimes you cannot find a piece, or the pieces won’t fit. However, metaphorically speaking, the missing piece might be a NET specialist presentation, a comment, statement or view from another patient, a link to an article from a reputable source, or even something you do to improve your lot – there might even be trial and error involved. It might even be this blog post!
How do you work out whether diarrhea is caused by a hormone producing tumour or by the side effects of treatments? There’s no easy answer to this as both might be contributing. One crude but logical way is to just accept that if you have normal hormonemarkers, for example 5HIAA (there could be more for other tumour/syndrome types), and you’re not really experiencing any of the other classic symptoms, then your syndrome might be under control due to your treatment (e.g. debulking surgery and/or somatostatin analogues, or another drug). My Oncologist labels me as ‘non-syndromic’ – something which I agree with. I’m 99.999999% sure my issues are as a result of the treatment I’ve had and am receiving.
This disease is so individual and there are many factors involved including the type of syndrome/NET, patient comorbidities and secondary illnesses, consequences of the surgery or treatments performed, side effects of drugs – all of which is intermingled with suspicion and coincidence – it’s that jigsaw again! I always like to look in more detail to understand why certain things might be better than others, I always challenge the ‘status quo’ looking to find a better ‘normal’. I really do think there are different strategies for syndrome induced diarrhea and that which is a result of treatment or a side effect of treatment. There’s also different prices, with inhibitors costing thousands, whilst classic anti-diarrhea treatments are just a few pennies. Adjustments to diets are free!
When I was discharged from hospital after the removal of my small intestinal primary, I was in the toilet A LOT (I was actually in the toilet a lot before I was discharged – check out my primary surgery blogs here) . My surgeon did say it would take months to get back to ‘normal’ – he was right and it did eventually settle – although my new ‘toilet normal’ was soft and loose and several times daily. My previously elevated CgA and 5HIAA were eventually back to normal and my flushing had disappeared. I didn’t have too many issues with diarrhea before diagnosis. Deduction: my issues are most likely not syndrome induced.
I read that many people find basic ‘Loperamide’ (Imodium) helps and I tend to agree with that if you are non syndromic and just need that little bit of help. I decided long time ago I would not become ‘hooked’ and only really take it for two purposes: 1) if I have a bad patch and 2) if I’m going on a long journey (i.e. on a plane perhaps). I estimate I’ve used 4 packets in as many years. Loperamide decreases the activity which causes intestinal motility (peristalsis). This has the effect of increasing the time material stays in the intestine therefore allowing more water to be absorbed from the fecal matter. Ideal for those with a shorter bowel due to surgery and advice from a medical professional is always advisable. To reduce the risk of malabsorption induced diarrhea and steatorrhoea, both of which can lead to loss of valuable nutrients, the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) might need to be introduced as required by your NET specialist.
Have a look at Enterade – the results from trials look good.
Clearly, I cannot offer any professional medical advice on coping with diarrhea, I can only discuss my own situation and what I found worked for me. Don’t forget, like many diseases, what works for one, might not work for another. However, I did tackle my problems following the advice of an experienced dietitian who specialises in NET Cancer. That said, I was ‘sleep walking’ for over 2 years thinking my issues were just part of the way things were after my treatment. I was wrong about that!
As for my own strategy, here’s things that helped me:
made some changes to diet(they were not huge changes),
maintained a diary to help with monitoring progress or setbacks,
hydration is also important (….still working on that one).
started taking PERT (Creon) on 23 Dec 2017 (changed to Nutrizym Feb 2019) but looks reasonably positive so far.
With no fancy and expensive drugs, I’ve gone from 6-8 visits to 1-2 visits (as a daily average, it’s actually 1.5). This didn’t happen overnight though, it took a lot of time and patience. All of this doesn’t mean to say I don’t have issues from time to time …… because I do!
In summary, I think it’s important that people be sure what is actually causing their diarrhea after diagnosis so that the right advice and the optimum treatment can be given.
Listen to Dr Wolin talking about this particular jigsaw puzzle – click here
Also see a nice article that come out of NANETS 2017 – click here
Of course, some people sometimes have the opposite effect but that’s in another blog here – Constipation
Withincurable but treatable cancers such as metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer, ‘Stable‘ is normally not the end of the matter, for many there is still a long road ahead and that road may not be straight or flat. The long road may be considered an advantage by some given that with very aggressive cancers, incurable can frequently mean terminal. The surveillance must continue in case of a recurrence.
It’s important to understand that ‘Stable‘ simply means the disease is “under control” with tests and scans showing the cancer hasn’t changed over time.
One of the disadvantages of ‘incurable but treatable‘ is that Quality of Life (QoL) can in many cases be compromised due to the consequences of cancer and /or treatment. However, if specialist treatment, surveillance and support are all in place, things can gradually be adjusted to a new and hopefully tolerable ‘normal’.
I also believe patient expectations need to be managed although improvements are still possible. In my own experience, however, this does not happen overnight. Patients must be willing to accept a new normal or status quo on the basis that things are never likely to be the same again. Many patients with chronic conditions will have minor irritants and Neuroendocrine Cancer patients are no exception in this regard.
HOWEVER …….. The specialist view of ‘stable’ will be looking at tumour and hormone makers. The patient is likely to have a much wider view of ‘stable’ and it will include ‘quality of life’ markers.
So ….what is stable for me?
Looking at my medical documents, I was not really considered ‘stable’ by specialists until 2 years after diagnosis. The measure of that is in scans and markers. Nothing has grown since 2012 although I have a thyroid lesionbeing tracked on watch and wait. My key NET markers have been solidly in range since 2012. Today, my on-going monthly treatments are well organised, I’m in touch with my specialists and undergo several surveillance checks beforehand every 6 months currently. I get regular/normal illnesses and those are logged in my diary to look for any clues or associations with anything else. In between consultations, I can call in for urgent help if need be. Irregularities of concern to my ‘stability’ are checked, referred to other specialists if necessary and treated. I feel well, I look well (but you should see my insides ….). I think I’m on top of things.
I think the UK (for example) is very well serviced with district NET Centres across the country each with specialists in Neuroendocrine Cancer and most include a dedicated NET Specialist Nurse – some areas are better served than others. In my opinion, NET Nurses can prove invaluable in on-going care scenarios. In fact, I was very pleased to see a NET Nurse attending and taking a greater role in my most recent MDT meetings. I’m fairly certain other countries have similar setups. Some countries may not be so fortunate and are struggling to get the right resources – I can see this on one or two ‘corporate’ Facebook and Twitter sites. Specialist NET Nurses are an extremely valuable commodity – they do brilliant work and we probably need more! The same could be said for NET Specialist Dietitians who are key to providing quality of life improvements. In fact, I was delighted to see this recommendation at ENETS 2018 in Barcelona.
OK … I may be stable (ish) but I still need support!
However ……. my stability does NOT mean I’m complacent. For minor issues, it’s always useful to talk to a medical professional, even on the telephone. I think of my GP (PCP) as a ‘virtual’ member of my Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) and I copy them into any important correspondence between myself and my Oncologist. They are normally copied in coming the other way (if not I make sure they are). This is starting to return dividends. Whilst my GP is positioned to deal with most of my ‘irritants’, I still believe specialist assistance is required for many NET Cancer problems or any problem where there is potentially an overlap or risk of a connection. Being your own advocate is useful in these scenarios. Patient-doctorcommunicationis vital and I find it best to drive this myself. I’m lucky to have direct ‘as and when’ contact a specialist NET Nurse. All NET patients should have the same.
The best advocate for you is YOU (or someone very close to you)
Although I still need constant surveillance, being stable allows me to focus on QoL and in particular trying to improve on my ‘normal’. Whilst we are on that subject, did you hear the one about the constipated NET patient? This article contains a summary of my attempts to gain a decent quality of life.
Although I read patient forums, I don’t necessarily rely on them a lot for my own issues. On sporadic one-off forum questions (…..and not forgetting that hundreds of symptom questions are related to ‘the gut’), the discussions can end up with many different and confusing answers. Plus there are so many patients who are at varying stages of their disease, use different types of healthcare systems, have had different treatments and have different types of NET, have other issues going on, it can end up as a tangled mess as people try to compare apples with pears. To help with this issue, I created my own private Facebook group and I try to emphasise these issues through moderation.
I like to do my own research as I want to be in control of my own QoL. One of the most troublesome QoL issues for patients is diet and the digestive system generally (i.e.managing the gut). For many NET patients, particularly those who have had surgery and/or persisting syndrome, diet and nutrition is a huge challenge as it can very often mimic other problems which can present with a wide range of ‘syndrome like’ symptoms such as fatigue, weight issues and even anxiety. More somatostatin analogues and other drugs might just be the wrong response in certain scenarios. I feel there is a huge gap in the follow-up treatment for people who suffer this as a consequence of their cancer. For example, and to the best of my knowledge, there is only a few dedicated and practicing Neuroendocrine specialist dietician in the whole of the UK (…..I’m willing to be corrected here). Some of you might be thinking that any dietician should be able to help? Although you would be correct to a certain extent, I personally do not believe this is the best or optimum solution. There are very specific issues with NET Cancer patients that are bespoke and complex to the point that conventional cancer diet practices may not fully apply. It’s not just about what you eat………..
NET Cancer patients need specialist dietary advice covering the whole spectrum from diet itself to the use of supplements where required, post-surgical advice, managing the long-term side effects of treatment, combatting and treating malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies caused by the complexities of their cancer or the consequences of their treatment. Personally, I think more resources and research in this area would be useful.
This gap is one of the reasons why I asked Tara Whyand (a dietician with specialist Neuroendocrine Cancer knowledge) to help me co-author a series of blogs to focus in on a few key areas. I didn’t want to say what someone should or should not do, I wanted to say why this is an area to watch. The ‘why‘ is important as it helps you in your efforts to distinguish the effects of a syndrome or a co-morbidity from the effects of your treatment (if applicable). I find this knowledge helps me to think ‘outside the box’ rather than just accepting ‘it’s the syndrome‘. I personally feel I’ve been able to harness this knowledge to improve my QoL.